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North Korea’s New Cruise Missile — Deadly, or a Distraction?

North Korean Military
Image: KCNA (Screenshot).

Crippled by economic sanctions and potentially struggling unsuccessfully against the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, North Korea’s latest cruise missile test might be more bluster than boom.

The Missile

On Monday, North Korea announced that the armed forces had successfully tested a new long-range cruise missile in one of the country’s first tests in several months. 

The Associated Press quoted North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency, a state-run news agency, stating that the new missile’s range is 1,500 kilometers or about 930 miles. North Korea described the missile in a typically bombastic fashion as a “strategic weapon of great significance,” which some analysts understand as the kind of weapon that could indicate its ultimate role as a nuclear-tipped weapon with which to target South Korea.

The test raised particular concern in Japan, as a missile with a 1,500-kilometer range would put the island country well within North Korea’s range.

Strange Times

This most recent test follows a recent North Korean military parade that was unusual for several different factors. First, North Korea showcased an absurdly antiquated, tractor-driven rocket and anti-tank force, and n addition, bright orange hazmat-suit clad soldiers goose-stepping in typical Communist fashion. Though painted olive drab, the repurposed farming equipment would be extremely unlikely to put up a concerted, effective resistance against modern military equipment.

Also notable during the event was the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. The rotund leader’s appearance was striking for the notable amount of weight he had apparently shed, leading to differing theories from North Korean analysts as to why the sudden loss of girth. Among the leading theories is an effort to improve Kim’s health rather than due to sickness like Covid-19.

Rockets Galore

The North Korean arsenal is notable for its myriad missiles, a diverse mixture of legacy Soviet designs, Chinese technology, and domestically-built weaponry. Still, the North’s arsenal is rapidly increasing in sophistication — and power.

Following North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, a small 0.5 to 2 kiloton device, the country’s nuclear tests have steadily increased. Most recently, in 2017, the North tested a device that experts estimate would yield a 140+ kiloton explosion. One kiloton is equal to the explosive force of 1,000 tons of TNT.

What Now? 

Concerning though North Korea’s latest missile test is, it may point to an unstable domestic situation. The North Korean economy is severely hobbled thanks to American-led sanctions. Although North Korea has not officially acknowledged Covid-19 cases within the North’s borders, anecdotal evidence suggests that the pandemic is severe. Given the multiple pressures on the country, this latest test could be observed as a distraction rather than a significant advancement of the country’s missile capabilities.

North Korea Collapse

Image: KCNA.

Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist based in Europe. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

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